Ancient and modern

Pericles would have approved of the PM’s response to the pandemic

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

It must be infuriating for those who see the Prime Minister as a prisoner of a rigid elitist mindset that he is reacting to the pandemic not by crushing the workers but by doing what needed to be done, however radical. Pericles, his hero, was equally pragmatic, as the historian Thucydides said — and reaped the reward.

Consider Pericles’s reaction in 431 bc to Sparta’s effective declaration of war. Athens at that time had walls that ran the five miles from the harbour up round the city, and back down to the harbour again. This made Athens impregnable by land, and since its triremes controlled the seas and could import goods from its allies, easily supplied. But since Sparta’s land army was invincible, Pericles refused to fight them and took drastic action: he ordered everyone living in small towns outside the city walls to decamp within them.

And so they did, ‘bringing with them their children, wives, domestic equipment and even the woodwork of their houses, and sending their cattle and draught-animals off to neighbouring islands’. They found this distressing, ‘being used to live in independent communities’, and resented ‘abandoning their homes and family shrines, for a change of life that felt to them like exile’. But they did it — needs must — and watched from the walls as the Spartans destroyed their property and crops at will.

Athens was then struck by a natural disaster, beyond even Pericles’s control. All this made the people turn on him, blaming him for everything: ‘they were at war, not peace; the poor had lost what little they had, the rich their fine estates and houses’. But he was not for turning. So they dismissed and fined him, ‘which defused their anger, and then, such is the way of crowds, they re-appointed him and entrusted the whole conduct of affairs to him, considering him best able to meet the needs of the city’.

That is Thucydides’ account. As a historian, he concluded that the same set of circumstances would produce the same results. If so, the PM’s hard-line, ‘needs-must’ response to the pandemic could meet with a similarly mixed, but ultimately supportive, reaction.

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